It was a shock to hear my favorite tabloid being hawked for nothing on the streets of London this week. The Evening Standard is the first quality newspaper in London to become officially and (presumably permanently) free.

“The Evening Standard is now free; Keep on walking,” shouted one purveyor to rush hour commuters dashing for the Tube, who would no longer have to pause for even a second to dig out 50 pence (80 cents) from their pocket.

According to media reports, the paper's owners, including Russian tycoon Alexander Lebedev, decided to make the move in order to boost the paper’s falling circulation. To increase its readership from 200,000, the Standard began distributing 600,000 free copies a day starting this week. So far Success: according to the Standard’s editor, they were having trouble keeping up with the street demand for the newly free paper.
Is this bad news for those of us who try to earn a living as journalists? Some of my fellow journalists here in London thought so.

“How will the perception of the publication change when it becomes free on the streets,” the World Editors’ Forum editorsweblog asked, “littered about like so many other free” papers?

As the many giveaway papers strewn across the trains and platforms of London’s Underground attest, freebies are treated by commuters just like the trash they are. I usually hold on to my Evening Standard so I can refer to the TV, theater and art reviews for which it’s rightly esteemed. (Ok, ok, I also like to read the latest gossip about model Kate Moss-- where the Standard also excels.) But maybe the reason I and others carry it home is that we’ve actually paid something for it.

The Standard will immediately begin to lose £370,000 ($605,000) a week by cutting off circulation revenue, the editors’ blog noted, a loss the paper hopes to make up with advertising bucks attracted by a bigger circulation. But at a time when newspapers are losing advertising to Craigslist and other online venues, does this really make sense?

That’s one reason Norman Giller, writing in Sports Journalists’ Association News, said the owners of the Evening Standard are making a “whopper of a mistake.”

“What on earth can follow giving the paper away? That does not bear thinking about at a time when journalists’ jobs are falling like autumn leaves.”

At least one weekly columnist for the Evening Standard, Roy Greenslade, was not worried. “Something dramatic had to be done to re-ignite interest from advertisers,” he wrote in the Guardian. “In such desperate circumstances, going free was not so much an option as the only option.”

“[T]hough I never expected to write this, I shall happily work for a free (though not, of course, for free),” he concluded.

But of course, that’s exactly the worry. More and more journalists are being expected to work for free. More news outlets expect reporters to make constant additions to blogs and Twitter along with their regular reporting. And many of us happily oblige as a form of individual expression and self-promotion. The blog I’m writing now is for free.

Some have made the argument that content “wants to be free.” Or that bloggers will happily report the news for free that some reporter was once paid for.

Ian Shapira, a reporter for the Washington Post, recently wrote how thrilled he was when an article he’d written for the Post became fodder for the hip New York media and culture website Gawker. Shapira was so thrilled that he posted the story on his Facebook page and tweeted it on Twitter.

But his editor’s reaction was “They stole your story.”

Actually, despite a link to the Post story, there was no mention of the Washington Post in the blog post itself. Gawker simply summarized Shapira’s profile-- of a business coach who gets big bucks for explaining the behavior of teens and 20-somethings in the workplace.

As he started to think about it, Shapira got angrier. He realized he’d spent more than a day reporting on the story, had traveled to a conference, for which he had 4 hours of tape transcribing invested, had spent an hour on the phone with his subject and transcribed 3,000 words of notes. “How long did it take Gawker to rewrite and republish it, cherry-pick the funniest quotes, sell ads against it and ultimately reap 9,500 (and counting) page views?” Shapira asked. A half hour to an hour, according to the Gawker writer Shapira phoned.

As Shapira wrote: “I enjoy reading Gawker and the growing number of news sites like it -- the Huffington Post, the Daily Beast and others -- but lately they're making me even more nervous about my precarious career as a newspaper reporter who enjoys, at least for the time being, a salary, a 401(k) and health insurance.”

So what’s the solution? After all, most of this content is already free in digital form—it didn’t cost me anything to read the Standard online even before the paper version became a freebie.

But some people are worried that some of those paid services could disappear. Especially the work of shoe-leather journalists, who cover state legislatures through all those boring hearings so they can report a nugget of information about the legislation that’s getting passed, blocked or manipulated by lobbyists. And isn’t that one of the main ways we keep a watch on our elected politicians, who are charged with carrying out a big part of what we think of as our democracy?

David Marburger, a first amendment lawyer, is proposing to amend copyright law to help newspapers. News organizations would have rights they could enforce in court if the Web sites that like to excerpt from them refused to bargain with them for a fee or a contract.

Otherwise, it’s not clear how journalists will survive.

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Comment by Robin Kemp on October 22, 2009 at 7:11am
My freelance writing career has gone in reverse. I made plenty of money when I started, but have seen my business drop off to almost nothing over a 12-year period. Granted, I moved twice, thus losing established local clients. Maybe it's also because I've been in grad school for the past decade or so. However, national "opportunities" have become insulting at worst and diminishing-returns propositions at best. "Great opportunities to build a clip file" don't wash with me 22 years later, yet that's all I seem to be finding. Gone are the days when I could line up a few inside and capsule stories, a cover story for a monthly, and a commercial writing job on the side, while writing full-time for print or TV news operations.

The problem is that too many media outlets are concentrated in too few hands. Publishers become "content brokers," who (in my experience) don't wish to pay for content and refuse to remunerate writers for their per-click results, Tasini notwithstanding. What all this adds up to is silence--corporations silencing solid writers and reporters by treating them as digital sharecroppers. Either sell your content for mills on the dollar or go away quietly.

The only way out that I see is to write a successful, topical non-fiction book and get agented.


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